Cannes regains its Oscar foresight

As the absence of any potential Oscar fodder from the just-wrapped Berlin Film Festival became apparent — pundits on the hunt for a second consecutive “A Separation”-style crossover item were disappointed with the lineup, though cineastes needn’t have been — I got to thinking about the presence of festival fare in this year’s Academy Awards class.

In recent years, the festival circuit has become far more integral to the Oscar race than it used to be: all but one of the last six Best Picture winners debuted at a high-profile festival, from Cannes and Venice to Toronto and Telluride.

That’s in marked contrast to the beginning of the new century, when all five winners from “Gladiator” through to “Million Dollar Baby” were major studio productions that had no need of a festival platform. As independents increasingly dominate the awards conversation, so too do the festivals that birth them: spotting an orphan film that can be groomed into a major Oscar player has become a more viable practice for many studios than developing their own, with Harvey Weinstein still the master of the game.

Five of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees took their first steps on the festival circuit; six, if you count the New York Film Festival unveiling of the then-unfinished “Hugo.” Three of them, however, came from a single fest — and while it’s lately been the fall festivals that reveal a good proportion of contenders, this year it’s the daddy of them all, Cannes, that can take the most credit.

Cannes babies haven’t been that prominent in the Best Picture recently: last year’s field featured none at all. This year, however, “The Artist” looks set to be the first Best Picture winner to emerge from the Cannes competition since “No Country for Old Men” four years ago; you have to go all the way back to 1981’s “Chariots of Fire” to find another.

On neither of those previous occasions was the Oscar winner accompanied in the nominees by another Croisette alumnus, much less the Palme d’Or winner. Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is the first winner of Cannes’s top prize to land a Best Picture nod since Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” nine years ago.

It’s rare enough that the Academy’s middlebrow sensibilities and the French festival’s routine preference for rarefied art cinema overlap on a single film — least of all one as challenging and polarizing as Malick’s opus — but for them to do so in the same year they also agree on the festival’s breakout crowdpleaser is pretty special. Add in “Midnight in Paris,” which had the honor of opening Cannes last May, and the festival has reaffirmed its reputation as the first port of call for future prestige items.

(Venice, which debuted “The Hurt Locker” 18 months before its eventual Oscar triumph, and has recently given us the likes of “Black Swan,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Atonement,” had a quieter year, introducing only “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “The Ides of March” and the finally unnominated “Shame” to the conversation. Toronto, meanwhile, generated less buzz than usual, neatly if coincidentally symbolized by its head-scratching Audience Award winner “Where Do We Go Now?”) 

The Cannes connection continues in the Best Actor race, where Jean Dujardin is looking primed to become the first actor since Holly Hunter in 1993 (coincidentally, another largely dialogue-free performance) to win a leading-role Oscar after taking gold on the Croisette, and the first male on since William Hurt in 1985. Of course, Christoph Waltz scooped a supporting Oscar for “Inglourious Basterds” months after winning Best Actor at Cannes; the year after, joint winner Javier Bardem also found his way to an Oscar nod. Three years in a row, then, that the Academy has noticed the Cannes Best Actor win — an impressive run after 20 years of them not doing so.

Last year’s Best Actress winner at Cannes, Kirsten Dunst for “Melancholia,” wasn’t quite so lucky, despite being the most Hollywood name the category has landed upon in decades. Still, she struck in the Oscar conversation for long enough for it to be worth noting here; even closer to a nomination, meanwhile, was Tilda Swinton, whose prickly arthouse vehicle “We Need to Talk About Kevin” also competed on the Croisette.

Other awards-season notables from the Cannes Class of 2011: Best Foreign Language Film nominee “Footnote,” winner of the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes, and, of course, “Drive,” which went all the way from a Best Director win at Cannes to a puny Sound Editing nod at the Oscars. That this still counts as a Cannes-to-Academy success story of sorts suggests we mustn’t overstate the festival’s significance in the Oscar race: they’ll always be wildly different institutions with wildly opposed tastes and priorities.

Still, festivals like Cannes remain an interesting litmus test for success in the simultaneously more and less forgiving context of the US awards race. When I said at Cannes back in May that I thought “The Artist” was a likely Best Picture nominee and potential winner, a lot of people told me I was jumping the gun or flat-out crazy, but the swooning crowd reaction to the film was too compelling to ignore, with or without Harvey Weinstein’s involvement. His acquisition of the film may be the smartest festival purchase any distributor has ever made with Oscar on the brain; expect more future awards juggernauts to be hatched this way, and expect all eyes to be on this year’s Cannes competition lineup in search of the next one.  

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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